EVANSTON — The best athlete at Northwestern University stands 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs less than 150 pounds. He keeps his blonde hair long — flowing in front of his face or behind his ears and down his neck — his wardrobe colorful — printed socks sandwiched between brightly colored shorts and shoes — and his demeanor laid back. The California native's favorite adjectives are "awesome" and "huge," two words he'd never use to describe himself.
"He's one of the best swimmers in the world," Northwestern head swimming coach Jarod Schroeder says, "but you would never know it."
From the outside, it may seem like Jordan Wilimovsky doesn't know it either. He never mentions his past accomplishments, and sheepishly smiles when asked about them. His Twitter bio reads simply, "swimming and stuff." But when the U.S. Olympic hopeful trades in his shorts for a swimsuit and takes off his fashionable socks and shoes, when he puts a swim cap over that long blonde hair, that facade fades away.
When his feet leave the starting blocks and his hands hit the water, he's not that laid-back California kid. He's no longer joking around with his teammates and just being "one of the guys," as Schroeder describes him. He transforms into a record-breaker — he owns school records in the 500, 1,000 and 1,650 meter freestyle. He's a Big Ten champion in the 1,650. He's a three-time All-American: twice in the 1,650 and once in the 500.
Next summer, Wilimovsky might be able to add the ultimate accomplishment to his résumé.
"Getting the chance to swim in the Olympics is what keeps me motivated," the distance specialist says. "It's such an awesome opportunity."
But before swimming spawned Wilimovsky's dreams, it brought him failure.
When he was young and growing up on the beach in Malibu, he, like almost all of his friends, wanted to become a junior lifeguard during the summer. The only way to become one was through a lifeguard camp. One test required the participants to complete the 100-yard freestyle in 1:50.
Eight-year-old Jordan couldn't do it.
That day, his mother Wendy recalls, he came home and told her that he wanted to join a swim team so that he could make the cut the following summer and be with his friends as a lifeguard.
Jordan's first exposure to competitive swimming, in essence, was only supposed to be a one-year thing to help him become a lifeguard. But Jordan fell in love with it, and, to this day, he hasn't left the water.
By his junior year of high school, Wilimovsky had dropped all other sports to focus on swimming. Additionally, he swam for Team Santa Monica, a club team, and coach Dave Kelsheimer year-round. It was Kelsheimer who turned Wilimovsky, then focusing on short events, into a long-distance swimmer at age 16. It paid huge dividends for Wilimovsky, who was often noticeably outsized by opposing sprinters. He would go on to set club records in several events, and still holds the records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 meter freestyle.
"For distance swimming, there's an advantage to being smaller because your endurance level is longer," Wendy says. "He's got a different stamina. The longer he's swimming, the more energy and the faster he gets."
The transition wasn't always the easiest, though.
Wilimovsky was scheduled to swim his first open water race in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. just a few days after a hurricane.
"The water was unbelievably choppy," Wendy remembers. "They probably never should have run that race at all. It was a dangerous race."
Over three hours passed, and Wendy's son had yet to finish the race. With each passing minute and each glance at the waves crashing onto the shore, she grew more and more worried about Jordan.
"I was absolutely convinced that he wasn't going to come out of the water," she says. "As a parent, I was convinced he would never ever want to swim again. But he went back two days later in the five-kilometer race and the water was as calm as a lake and he absolutely loved it. That's where he got his passion for open water swimming."
The thing that attracts Wilimovsky to distance swimming the most is its ability to clear his mind.
"When I'm by myself, I think about nothing, really," he says. "It's nice to be swimming by yourself. It's quiet and really peaceful."
It's a good thing he likes swimming by himself so much because, well, he does it a lot. Schroeder says his distance swimmers usually conquer 50,000 to 60,000 meters in the pool every week and do some dry-land work, like weightlifting and cardio. During that time, however, Wilimovsky stays in the pool, perfecting his stroke and improving his endurance. He swims an absurd 80,000-90,000 meters per week. For reference, that's like swimming from Northwestern's campus in Evanston down to the Chicago Bears' Soldier Field, then back up to Northwestern, then back to Soldier Field, and finally back up to Northwestern. Every. Single. Week.
"He's like the Energizer Bunny," Schroeder says. "He keeps going and going and going. I write workouts to try to stump him, and I think I've got him, but he breaks through and is able to do things I didn't think he was capable of doing."
Wilimovsky's diet is unique too. Every morning, he gets up around 5:30 and downs a bowl of cereal and a protein shake before practice. After practice, he eats a snack pack that all Northwestern athletes are provided. Then, it's finally time for breakfast. Later, he eats a midday snack, usually pretzels and some sort of fruit, and then lunch before afternoon practice. After the second practice of the day, he'll drink another protein shake and eat dinner. He then adds one more snack before bed. Bed usually isn't until 11 or 11:30.
"I'm always tired," he says.
That's part of the reason that next year, Wilimovsky will redshirt and head back to the Los Angeles area to focus exclusively on training with Team Santa Monica. A political science major and twice an Academic All-Big Ten selection, he will take the 2015-16 academic year off, but for good reason: he's preparing for a run at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. His dream and his motivation are right in front of him.
On July 27, 2015, he will represent the United States at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, alongside Olympic gold medalists like Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin. He will swim the 10K, the event he won at Nationals back in April, against the best in the world.
"Obviously it'll be a tougher field, but watching him train and the mindset he has going into every workout and the way he finishes off sets, I believe he's got a great opportunity and can take advantage of that this summer," Schroeder says.
The race is an absolute grind: 10 kilometers of open water swimming takes nearly two hours in even the best conditions. It took Jordan 1:54.27 in April, making him a back-to-back national champion.
It'll be the biggest two hours of his swimming life, as he needs to finish in the top ten to guarantee his spot on the Olympic team. He's one of only two Americans who can make the team before the end of the year. If he doesn't place in the top ten, he'll have two other opportunities: a qualifier in April of 2016 and then Olympic Trials in June of 2016.
So when he throws on a United States swimsuit and cap this summer instead of a Northwestern one, Jordan Wilimovsky will be pursuing his dream. When he returns to Los Angeles to train afterwards, he'll be that same kid who fell in love with swimming at the age of 9 — the same kid who conceived that dream. And if he represents the U.S. in Rio, he'll get to live it.
The following fall, he'll return to Northwestern. Perhaps he'll do so as an Olympian, perhaps not. But either way, he'll still be 5-foot-9. He'll still be around 150 pounds. He'll still be as humble as ever. And you still likely won't recognize him around campus. He still won't look the part.
But if that dream becomes a reality, he'll sure have played the part. He just might not tell you about it.